Joshua J. Mark
published on 02 September 2009
Ramesses II (alternative spellings: Ramses, Rameses and known to the Egyptians as Userma’atre’setepenre, which means 'Keeper of Harmony and Balance, Strong in Right, Elect of Ra’, known also as Ozymandias and as Ramesses the Great) was the third pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty. Ramesses lived to be 96 years old, had over 200 wives and concubines, 96 sons and 60 daughters, most of whom he outlived. So long was his reign that all of his subjects, when he died, had been born knowing Ramesses as pharaoh and there was widespread panic that the world would end with the death of their king. There is virtually no ancient site in Egypt which does not make mention of Ramesses the Great.
Ramesses was the son of Seti I and Queen Tuya and accompanied his father on military campaigns in Libya and Palestine at the age of 14. By the age of 22 Ramesses was leading his own campaigns in Nubia with his own sons and was named co-ruler with Seti. With his father, Ramesses set about vast restoration projects and built a new palace at Avaris. After the death of Seti I in 1290 BCE, Ramesses assumed the throne and at once began military campaigns to restore the borders of Egypt and ensure trade routes.
The Battle of Kadesh, one of his earliest engagements (dated, by some, at 1274 BCE) almost resulted in his defeat and death. It was only owing to his own personal courage and calm in battle that he was able to turn the tide against the Hittite King Muwatalli II. Rameses immortalized his feats at Kadesh in the Poem of Pentaur and The Bulletin in which he describes the battle as a dazzling victory for Egypt (recent scholarship has concluded the battle was more of a draw). The Battle of Kadesh led to the first peace treaty ever signed in the world between Ramesses II and Hattusili III of the Hittite Empire. The vast tomb complex known as the Ramesseum at Thebes, the temples at Abu Simbel, the hall at Karnak, the complex at Abydos and literally hundreds of other buildings, monuments, temples were all constructed by Ramesses. Many historians consider his reign the pinnacle of Egyptian art and culture and the famous Tomb of Nefertari with its wall paintings is cited as clear evidence of the truth of this claim. Nefertari was Ramesses' first wife and his favorite queen. Many depictions of Nefertari appear on temple walls and in statuary throughout his reign even though she seems to have died fairly early in their marriage (perhaps in child birth) and her tomb, even though discovered looted, was a work of art in construction and decoration.
After Nefertari, Ramesses married Istnofret and, after her death, his daughters became his consorts. Even so, the memory of Nefertari seems to have always been close in his mind in that Ramesses had her likeness engraved on walls and statuary long after he had taken other wives. Although Ramesses has been popularly associated with the 'pharaoh’ of the Biblical Book of Exodus, there is absolutely no evidence to support this claim. Extensive archaeological excavations at Giza and elsewhere throughout Egypt have unearthed ample evidence that the building projects undertaken under the reign of Ramesses II (and others, for that matter) used skilled and unskilled Egyptian laborers who were either paid for their time or who volunteered as part of their civic duty.
Further, Ramesses was famous for recording histories of his accomplishments and for embellishing the facts when they did not quite fit history as he wished it preserved. It seems highly unlikely that such a king would neglect to record (with or without a favorable slant) the plagues which allegedly fell upon Egypt or the flight of the Hebrew slaves. Ramesses the Great’s mummy shows that he stood over six feet in height with a strong, jutting jaw, thin nose and thick lips. He suffered from dental problems, severe arthritis and hardening of the arteries and, most likely, died from old age or heart failure. He was known to later Egyptians as the 'Great Ancestor’ and many pharaohs would do him the honor of taking his name as their own; none of them, however, would surpass the grand achievements and glory of Ramesses the Great.